I couldn’t have been more than 11 or 12 years old when my father first played me a song about a robbery, written from a raucous criminal’s point of view, featuring a catchily ascending introductory riff, threats to “put a bullet right through your best liver,” and a backing track that sounded like it was being (purposefully) stumbled through by some drunken mariachis. “The Hold-Up,” co-written by George Harrison in the late 1960s, marked the beginning of my obsession with string instrumentalist, ironist, and songwriter David Bromberg, whose albums I soon started collecting. Bromberg was my gateway drug into the vertiginously vast taxonomy known as American roots music. If one were to follow the trail through all the musicians he played beside (Bob Dylan, Tom Rush, and the Grateful Dead) and all those whose songs he interpreted (Bill Monroe, Allan Toussaint, Hoagy Carmichael, and a lot of Blind Willies), they’d arrive at an esoterically comprehensive cross-section of the United States’ tonal output through the 20th century. One of Bromberg’s most celebrated albums, Demon in Disguise, transitions with sardonic ease from jugband music (“Hard-Workin’ John”) to meretricious R&B (“Sharon”) and back again, all of it seemingly delivered by a sympathetic devil who knows interpersonal perfidy as intimately as he knows Martin guitars.
After a long retirement in the 1990s, during which he attended violin school, Bromberg returned to touring and released two albums, the latter of which, Use Me, sports an array of high-profile guests such as Los Lobos, Widespread Panic, and Levon Helm. I caught up with Bromberg to discuss his career, his upcoming show at New York’s Town Hall on March 3rd, what it’s like playing for drugged-up audiences, and how the profession of being a touring musician brings out masculine angst like no other.
So you’re doing a show in March with Allan Toussaint at New York’s Town Hall…
I’m really looking forward to that.
Me too. I was excited when I heard you were playing with Toussaint because one of my favorite tracks of yours is off a live bootleg I found where you play a big-band medley of “Motoring,” the Motown song, and “I Like It Like That,” the Chris Kenner tune that Allan Toussaint co-wrote.
I have a record called Dance Party by Martha and the Vandellas. I love that record. It’s a combination of A- and B-sides. Martha Reeves was a very special singer; she would use the fourth note of the scale as a blue note. I never heard anybody else do that, and she does it nearly every song. I love her singing and think it’s a fantastic choice of notes. And I came upon this song “Motoring,” which I think is a B-side, and I was just playing it one day, and then out came “I Like It Like That.”
But Allan Toussaint…it’s such an honor to share the stage with him. [He’s] one of the greatest writers in American history. He also made a record, The Bright Mississippi, that I’ll be listening to until the day I die. It’s gorgeous. To me, it sounds like a few musicians sitting in a New Orleans whorehouse in the middle of the afternoon, when there’s no business, just playing for themselves and for each other. And none of the musicians are trying to date their playing; they’re not trying to sound like 1921. But the feel is 1921. More sophisticated things creep in here and there, and they fit, and it’s fine. But they’re not playing down to it.
It’s interesting, because I wouldn’t be surprised if you put out an album like The Bright Mississippi either. You’re somewhat known for your broad, category-defying catalogue, though much of it could be classified as American roots music.
Today, having such disparate sources of music and performing so many different genres isn’t quite as weird as it was when I started doing it. It was commercial suicide at the time. In those days, we had record stores—they don’t exist any longer—and the record stores would have bins where they would classify the music. And they never had any idea where to put mine. That was a big handicap.
But your albums always sounded so unified…
Actually, one of the strangest things about my new album, Use Me, is that several reviewers and interviewers have told me that they think it hangs together better than my early albums, which were all produced by one person. And here’s an album with 11 tunes produced by 11 people, and it works.
I think it works because of your presence on the tracks. You have a way of making genres explicitly your own. You sing about yourself in the first person even when covering old standards, in the tradition of many R&B performers. And the only other musician from the ’70s who drew on such a protean bank of material was Ry Cooder, and he always inspired me to run out and listen to his sources. Your covers by comparison seem definitive because of your personality. Not to take anything away from Ry, I love him—
I do too. Actually, in the ’70s, I was interviewed by a woman who wrote in the published piece that I was slavishly imitating my sources, whereas Ry Cooder always did different things. I was stunned. I love what Ry Cooder does, I think he’s brilliant. But the flaw in that is that I’m not capable of slavishly imitating my sources!
But you feel like there’s more of an audience for esoteric repertoires today?
Before I stopped touring in 1980, there was something called “freeform radio” that was kind of built for me. You might tune into a freeform station and hear classical music, and then the next piece would be Cajun. Then there’d be a pop tune, and there’d be a blues number…you just never knew. Which is kind of what I do. But that’s gone. But now some bands, some of them moderately popular, are doing the same thing, and it makes my stuff less strange.
Any there any that you feel are direct descendants?
I hesitate to claim them. I will say the most similar band to mine is Lyle Lovett’s band. I sit in with them and Lyle always introduces me as a musical hero of his. So I think I may have had some influence there.